‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ filmmaker Céline Sciamma on the female gaze and her ‘architecture of desires’

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Two women stand on a cliff’s edge, their flowing gowns buffeted by the wind, their expressions lost to sea. One steals a surreptitious glance at the other; moments later, just as discreetly, it’s returned. Then, a sudden charge shifting the air between them, both look again and meet one another’s gaze, submitting to the unexpected power of at once seeing and being seen.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is many things—a sumptuous period romance, an intellectual exploration of the artist-subject dynamic, a radical rhapsody in praise of women’s art that declares it equally specific and vital—and it is a treillage of such glances, which give rise to a passionate affair between the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and noblewoman Héloise (Adèle Haenel) when the former is commissioned to paint the latter’s wedding portrait.

Set in 18th-century Brittany, this fourth feature by French writer-director Céline Sciamma is a period piece flushed with contemporary ideas, from its sensual yet sensitive depiction of queer desire to its nestled notions of memory and recognition as two essential processes in both art and love. After a limited release by last December in New York and Los Angeles, the film opens in select markets this Friday and expands throughout this coming month.

One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2019, as well as the winner of Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was conspicuously absent from this past Sunday’s Academy Awards for one simple reason. Permitted to put one film forward for the Academy to consider within its Best International Film category, France instead submitted Ladj Ly’s more politically driven Les Misérables, a feature debut inspired by the 2005 Paris riots.

But with Oscars season at an end, the path is clear for Portrait of a Lady on Fire to heat up the Valentine’s Day box office. Sciamma, who’s spent this past year promoting the film on the festival circuit, spoke to Fortune via phone last month about crafting what she calls a cinematic “reconstitution” of art and love historically not seen on screen.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Where did the idea for Portrait of a Lady on Fire come from?

It’s been a process of learning that was long, unusual, and very specific. I spent a long time thinking about the plot, in order to bring new narrative and new images into it, but also to build an architecture of desires for my film.

Some images I had in my head originally, like that a character would literally at one point be on fire, not just metaphorically. Some lines came to me that contained the film’s philosophy and politics, like, “Don’t regret. Remember.” Things like that were glimpses I had of the film, as was the last shot that I’d had in mind since the beginning. It was a compass of sorts, knowing we would end where we do.

I was trying to rely a lot on these strong desires, these single images that connoted representation and new power dynamics on screen, to really believe in those ideas and then craft a plot with those in mind. I knew I would have to connect all these things.

A still from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which tells the story of the intimacy and attraction that grows between a portrait artist and her subject.
Lilies Films/Neon Films

One radical element of the film is its navigation of contemporary ideas in a period setting, how scenes feel so flushed and alive—explicit, even—in a way that differs from what one might expect of a story more than 200 years ago. It seems to dance, almost, between the classic and modern. How did you achieve that tone?

I have no particular taste for period pieces. Portrait of a Lady on Fire had to be set in the past for several reasons, but it was going to be the same job [as making a modern film]. Cinema is always a reconstitution, either of the contemporary world or of the past. Either way, you choose everything. For me, I thought, “Because it’s set in the past, it has to be the most contemporary object possible.” I really try to think of each film as a prototype; setting one in the past can be full of traps, so I thought about how I was going to be playful with ideas.

As it is a female-driven story that hasn’t historically been told, one about the intimations of their intimacy, the film was all about giving these women back their present and their presence. That’s why it was optimal for me that we could shoot on digital [as opposed to film]. It was all about the rush of blood, them being very much dynamic and alive, giving them back their desires and their bodies.

This was challenging, but also less scary economically, in terms of the financing of the film. I could keep it cheap and less expensive so I wouldn’t have to compromise and could remain more radical. That’s always the game when writing a film, to think a lot about production so I don’t get enslaved to a dynamic that wouldn’t be good for the film. I was just playing with all these different layers. And the film is, well, layered.

Sciamma, who wrote and directed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is pictured at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2019. She won Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at the festival.
Loic Venance—AFP via Getty Images

Let’s talk about those layers. What you were just discussing, about reclaiming “the intimations of intimacy” for female artists, is incredibly poignant in Portrait. Women weren’t allowed to paint, and they certainly weren’t allowed to choose anyone other than men to love, in this time period.

In the beginning, I knew it would be a very careful, patient look at desire. That’s not often looked at in romance films, because you have this convention of love at first sight, not questioning that rise of desire from both perspectives. I knew it would be very much about the present of a love story, but also the memory of a love story, which means also its philosophy and politics. I was trying to depart from convention in writing it as either tragic, because they won’t end up together, or supposedly happy-ended, because it will end in professions of eternal commitment.

Maybe a happy ending for a love story isn’t about ending up together, or not. It’s about emancipation within the relationship, being given that by a love story, being made more curious by the relationship between love stories and art. Love stories educate us about art in our hearts, and this will bring us solace from a lost love.

It’s also the fact that women throughout history weren’t given the opportunity to be artists, and the ones who were were somewhat erased from history. We are lacking their body of work, missing these images that are beautiful, but we have also not been able to be transmitted their intimacies, because that is what art does. We don’t have these models, these levels [of art history], to describe these women’s hearts and desires. Cinema can give us a collective memory, by bringing to the screen these missing images. We do an abortion scene in the film; and even that, you very rarely see that on screen. What happens when you’re not transmitted these images? Cinema that can also bring collective memory is very important.

The fact also that they’re aware, to have a scene where they later paint the abortion, mirroring what they just did. It’s crazy that isn’t represented, ever, and so I wanted both these scenes. Then there’s the fact that it’s the model who tells the artist what she should be looking at.

Merlant (Marianne) and Haenel (Héloise) in a still from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Lilies Films/Neon Films

Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels like it’s all about this exchange of gazes, the artist looking at their subject (as is customary) and the subject looking back (in a way that is decidedly not). Was it difficult for you to remain in the role of the artist and not get drawn into the story yourself, given that your film subverts the historically one-directional nature of that dynamic?

I quite enjoyed the fact that we were all in the workshop of the painter together! All of us in that room, we were quite aware of this circulation. The film is mirroring how I work, actually. I actually felt that Noémie would watch me while I was talking with Adèle, and she’s said she looked a lot at how I gazed at Adèle, so that she could then perform that. We were very aware and playing with that idea. It was horizontal. I like sets to be fun; even though my films are very strongly intellectual, we were being playful within those dynamics, and I think you can tell.

Much has been made of the film’s foregrounding of the female gaze, how intrinsic the process of image-making is to creating one’s own identity, how powerful it feels for Marianne and Héloise to mutually exercise more control over that process. When did you first become familiar with ideas of specifically female and male gazes?

When I look back at Water Lilies (2007), my first film, I had really no clue. In France, the “male gaze” does not exist. There’s “neutral gaze,” then there’s “films made by women.” [Laughs] Even the French critics, who politicize other elements, they’re not into gender or feminist lecture in film. They despise it. We’re not handed that culture. For me, because I did my first film just out of school, it felt more intuitive. I wasn’t thinking about the female gaze at all. But looking back, it was happening without me knowing. Eventually, through reading and also this whole cultural moment we’re going through, I became wiser and more aware. I consider what I do now to be more of a laboratory. The male gaze is convention, and so the female gaze is an opportunity to depart from convention. But that leaves me more in control.

Ultimately, it’s about deconstructing yourself. It’s not because I’m female that I use the female gaze. Many female directors can do the male gaze. But deconstructing yourself, examining your political and creative will, is how you make new images. You have to want it very deeply, because it’s not easy to depart from that.

A scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Sciamma says, “I always have to think about the pleasure of the audience.”
Lilies Films/Neon Films

You’ve spoken as well about retraining the audience’s gaze, and there are scenes in your film where the audience’s perspective is subtly slipping into the gaze of one of the characters. The last shot that you mentioned earlier finds Marianne looking at Héloise, and the camera slowly zooming in on Héloise from across a wide space. I felt so conscious of myself as an observer, in that moment.

I think about the viewer as the most intelligent person. And I really believe that. I like to put my audience in a very active position as the viewer, to provide room for them. The pleasure of being in a cinema is that you get to speak more and more the language of a film, and your pleasure comes from that. That’s why rhythm is so important.

At first, the film has this slow-burn pace that you have to get used to, but eventually you take pleasure in its language and its glamour. The love dialogue between these two characters also becomes the love dialogue between the viewer and the film.

The last shot is all about putting the viewer in a position where there’s room for them. It’s a two-minute, 51-second shot. And at some point, it’s not about the viewer watching Héloise through Marianne’s eyes, but it’s about Adèle performing and cinema unveiling itself. There’s room for your own memories, your own thoughts and feelings about love. That’s also a way to re-educate the gaze, to free it. And most of that comes down to you enjoying it.

I always have to think about the pleasure of the audience, what it’s made of and how the tools of cinema unlock it. It’s about the viewer enjoying all the layers, how it becomes more epic and symphonic, to believe in that and build that patiently so that it eventually becomes explosive.

Another key scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds your three characters—Marianne, Héloise, and a maid named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami)—discussing the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, advancing their own interpretations as to why Orpheus would have turned around to look back at his life’s love upon almost rescuing her from the underworld. In turning around, Orpheus dooms Eurydice to be trapped there forever.

The Orpheus and Eurydice dynamic came in very last in the writing process. I knew something was missing, but we were going for financing; we had two weeks, and I knew it was my last draft. I was looking for a moment between the three characters, almost a “Netflix and chill” scene, where they’d be together at this very climactic section and talk about it.

I thought about Orpheus and Eurydice, because it’s so climactic and it’s also really a story about the male gaze itself, how it kills. [Laughs] I wanted to look at mythology from the perspective of women, and it was magic. It just went really well. Suddenly, there was this thread I thought could be everywhere throughout the film, in some kind of way. It could be the link between the two layers of time in the film. The present of the love story would be haunted by its end, which is something all love stories have, in a way. We’re haunted by our beginnings and our hypothetical endings.

Regarding the interpretations, I agree with them all. We look at myths as proverbial things, from the perspective of their endings. With Icarus, it’s not to fly too close to the sun or be too ambitious. Myths are all about their interpretations and the tensions they put within you. All the meanings are true. That’s what art should do. It should put you in a position where you have different hypotheses, even of yourself.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Contagion writer, scientific adviser reflect on film’s newfound relevance amid coronavirus crisis
—Ava DuVernay on the “radical act” of black love in OWN’s Cherish the Day
—How history-making wins for Parasite and The Farewell can shift Hollywood’s diversity narrative
Summertime director and cast on crafting a “love letter” to Los Angeles
—The best movies that came out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
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